Transhuman Ufology

Mac Tonnies @ 16-03-2008

Mac Tonnies - Loving the Alien Welcome to the return of non-fiction essays to Futurismic! And welcome also to the inaugural Loving The Alien column, in which Mac Tonnies sets out his pitch for “transhuman ufology”.

How can Kurzweilian Singularitarianism and informed ufological speculation be reconciled? Read on to find out …

Continue reading “Transhuman Ufology”

Make technological utopia easier with this one weird trick

Paul Raven @ 12-10-2014

Kevin Kelly’s “desirable-future haikus” thing on Medium is a great example of what I believe to be the standard blindspot of ICT-focussed futurists, in that they’ve forgotten that anything other than ICT could possibly matter or make a difference to the way we live.

In a way, this points to a widespread and stunted understanding of the word “technology” as meaning “electronics and computers”, when in fact the Greek root of the word addresses techniques, skills and competencies alongside the tools needed to do the job. Agriculture is a technology; democracy is a technology. Technology does not begin and end in the garages of Palo fucking Alto. Technology is not (just) a smartphone with an app for locating a flunky to make you a sandwich.

Kelly seems to have finally hit the contemporary sf writer’s problem, which is that hardly anyone’s buying utopias these days, least of all the people who write them. So he solicits a bunch of hundred-word, hundred-years-hence “haikus” from his followers on Twitter that describe “a plausible technological future”of the something-to-aspire-to type, rather like a pared-down take on Stephenson’s Hieroglyph project. It should be noted that Kelly says he doesn’t actually know any of the contributors; they’re just folk who follow him who emailed in to his CFP, and is as such “a random sample of [Kelly’s] tribe”; it’s that very tribalism that may be the source of his problem.

What comes as no surprise is that the resulting scenarios (with a few exceptions) are packed full of all the standard transhumanist techno-cornucopian tropes (immortality! super-abundance! energy too cheap to bother metering! perpetual economic growth from the free-est algorithmically-managed markets EVAR!) with a few recent additions to the pantheon (the [blockchain/free-energy-device/fusion/Big Data/quantitative analysis] will save us!), all of which share two major traits: a misparsing of entropy and thermodynamics, and the belief that, if we can just invent or code up that one perfect bit of technology we’re missing, everything will fall into place. (Once you read enough of them, SilVal start-up manifestos start to remind you of the business model of the Underpants Gnomes.)

Underpants Gnomes business plan

The third major trait is that most of them read as ridiculously naïve, and that’s not just a consequence of the previous two. Kelly’s problem – the unwritableness of a “plausible technological future” – is implicit in his formulation; it’s impossible to write a believable future where technology has fixed everything because “technology” doesn’t make things better. People make things better – sometimes through the use of new technology, but certainly not exclusively.

Now, as a card-carrying Harawayian, I am in no way averse to ascribing agency to non-human and/or artefactual subjects; what bothers me about these scenarios is that they largely remove agency from human subjects, being variations on the Software Salvationism which believes that all obstacles might be overcome through the addition of EVN MOAR ALGOS PLZ*, and assumes (falsely, I hope) that people would like less direct control over the way their world works rather than more. But it’s kind of inevitable, really: when you ask “how can technology make a better future?” you foreclose (whether deliberately or not) on the possibility of making that better future with anything other than new technology; this is one of the epistemological bear-traps of technological determinism, which Kelly and many other tech-centric futures people have been circling around for decades.

But it’s easily enough stepped out of; all you need to do is take the “technology” specifier out of the question, and/or avoid asking it of people who identify with technology in either a entrepreneurial or quasi-religious manner (no beer for you, Ray Kurzweil). By way of example, here’s my own late submission to Kelly’s call, a 101-word haiku describing a desirable future:

No one goes hungry. No one sleeps outdoors, unless they choose to. No one is conscripted as a child-soldier. No one is maimed by land-mines made on the other side of the world. No one is exploited for the betterment or gain of another. No one is a second class citizen to anyone. Nothing is wasted. Things – whether material or digital – are made with care and thought, and are made to last a long, long time. We appreciate a plurality of systems of value alongside the legacy cash-money system, which we keep going as a honey-trap distraction for the instinctively acquisitive.

If that’s not utopian and desirable, I don’t know what it is. And as implausible, unlikely and peacenik-pie-in-the-sky as you might (very reasonably) choose to call it, it is possible — because it doesn’t require us to make a single damned invention or piece of software we don’t already have. We have everything we need already; it’s just, as Gibson didn’t quite say, not yet evenly distributed. That means my little scenario above is intrinsically more plausible than any future that requires a technological novum to make it work, because [Occam’s Razor]. And if you’re aching to say “but hang on, you’ll never get that to work because getting people to change the way they do things isn’t at all simple”, then congratulations –you’ve internalised the very point I’ve been trying to make all along. Have a cookie.

In short, then, and in hope of answering Kelly’s rhetorical question: the reason it is no longer possible/easy to write believable technological utopias is that we’ve had enough historical and personal experience with previous technologies failing to deliver on their utopian promises that we are no longer willing to take them at face value; we no longer believe that new technologies are an unalloyed good in and of themselves, and there have been sufficient charlatan futurists that we’ve started to assume they’re all charlatans until proven otherwise.

So perhaps we’re edging closer to utopia faster than we thought.


[ * The irony of people cheerleading for greater algorithmic management of human affairs (especially as a utopian response to a flood of dystopias which are themselves based around the premise of ubiquitous algorithmic management of human affairs, in direct artistic response to the increasing ubiquity of the algorithmic management of human affairs in the world most of us actually live in) is palpable, but joyless. It reminded me of this picture from a friend’s Instagram feed:

Because the best possible response to the ongoing problem of trash accumulating in the Pacific gyre is surely not to sort our shit out and stop filling the oceans with rubbish, but to fish some of it out, make it into clothes that cost more than some human beings earn in a year, and hire Panglossian celebrities to add an overcoat of aspirational gloss to the triple-sprayed greenwash base-coat of the initial concept!

To twist Marx a bit: the capitalist will gladly sell you your portion of the rope with which you, he and everyone else are collectively hanging themselves. ]

A Viridian post-mortem, plus the rhetorics of futurity

Paul Raven @ 29-11-2013

“Three things make a post,” the saying used to go — so here’s three things.

First up, my first solo paper (“The future’s four quarters: Proposing a quadrant methodology for strategic prototyping in infrastructural contexts”) has finally wended its way through the tangled corridors of the academic publishing system, and is now in press at Technological Forecasting & Social Change. It’s basically an attempt to retool the nascent field of sf prototyping into something more than an unreflexive flight of solutionist fancy, but also to scale it up in order to explore systemic issues, rather than merely reiterating the Gernsbackian gadget-story mode with exploratory research findings and pretending you’re doing something other than R&D wish-fulfilment. (If you don’t have institutional access but would like to see a copy nonetheless, drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do.)

Secondly, I wrote an essay for Tim Maly’s 5 Viridian Years thing on Medium. Tim’s project was to rake over the coals of Bruce Sterling’s Viridian Design movement, five years after the Chairman decided to fold it up ahead of schedule. I won’t even attempt to sum up the collection, as the viewpoints and angles are gloriously various, but I definitely get an underlying vibe of “mission unaccomplished”; the Viridian problems haven’t gone away, even if the method had its moment and missed the mark. So here’s my take on the whole thing, which is basically that hairshirt-green primitivism and technological solutionism are both equally untenable answers to climate change and its related super-wicked problem set.

Thirdly (and related to both the secondly and the firstly), Sterling has a wee piece in Wired UK where he talks about the rhetorics of design fiction. Here’s the important bit:

“Suspending disbelief” means that design fiction has an ethics. Design fictions are fakes of a theatrical sort, but they’re not wicked frauds or hoaxes intended to rob or fool people. A design fiction is a creative act that puts the viewer into a different conceptual space — for a while. Then it lets him go. Design fiction has an audience, not victims.

The implicit point here is that there are a lot of things that use the techniques of design fiction without having that internalised ethics: political manifestos, corporate brochures, lifestyle-tech ads, transhumanist discourse, the list goes on. Some forms are deliberately hoaxy and/or seductive (cf. Dan Abelow’s hypergeneric “intellectual property”), while some are simply passionate people enthusiastically dining out upon their own delusional dogfood. If you recall my Improving Reality talk on infrastructure fiction, you’ll perhaps remember that I pegged Elon Musk’s Hyperloop as an unintentional design fiction; in Sterling’s terms above, of course, it’s not a design fiction at all, but I hold that understanding how design fiction works will furnish you the tools with which to take other futurist narratives apart and understand how they function (and what they’re really saying, which is rarely what they appear to be saying).

And given the proliferation of narratives of futurity, hoaxy or otherwise, a critical framework is much needed… so I’ll be working up a paper I gave back in the summer into a series of posts here at Futurismic, which will lay out my early efforts and let the public poke them with sticks. Watch this space, yeah?

An introduction to infrastructure fiction — Improving Reality 2013

Paul Raven @ 31-10-2013

I am very pleased to publish my talk from Improving Reality 2013. Here is the video version… followed by my slides and script, because, well, I’m a writer, and not a natural orator. (I need to work on that, I think.)

IR was a day of fascinating talks, and I heartily recommend all of them; they can be found on the Lighthouse Arts YouTube channel. Particular favourites include Keller Easterling (who was the very definition of “hard act to follow”), Justin Pickard (favoured guest of this parish in years past, and getting sharper and more dangerous by the month) and Georgina Voss (who’ll make you think about choose-your-own adventure books and venture capitalism in a totally new way).

So, on with the show…


[Slides and script below the cut…] Continue reading “An introduction to infrastructure fiction — Improving Reality 2013”

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro

Paul Raven @ 10-10-2011

I’ve been writing here at Futurismic for well over five years, now. It feels like longer, somehow, but it also feels like I only just started. I’ve learned a lot of things, not least of which is the fact that, the more you learn, the more you realise remains to be learned.

One of the things I’ve learned is that there is a not entirely unwarranted mistrust of folk who call themselves “futurists”. The etymology of the word doesn’t help, of course, but the core criticism is captured well by Jamais Cascio; when people hear “futurist”, they see some guy who gets paid a lot of money to go to conferences and make bold sweeping predictions about what’s going to happen in the next few decades… predictions that either play to the audience’s desires, or that fail to come true, or both.

The more time I spend looking at social, political, economic and technological change, the less certain I become about what tomorrow will look like. The only lingering conviction – the one that strengthens every day, while the others fall by the wayside – is that, as a species, we face a growing number of challenges and threats to our survival. Caught between the rock of a uncaring universe and the hard place of our primate-origin psychological legacy systems, we nonetheless somehow keep escaping sudden extinction or rapid decline. Eventually, of course, we’ll fail an important saving throw, and our game will be over. But we can strengthen our stats and broaden our skill-trees against the probability of having to make those rolls of the dice, building up our character sheet as the campaign continues. But where should we spend our XP? What tools, weapons and armour should we buy?

I don’t think any one person will ever produce a satisfactory or useful answer to those questions. I remain convinced that a sustainable human future depends on our ability to work together to secure it. To accomplish that, we need to combine the speculative foresight component of the futurist’s discipline with achievable and practical solutions to the most pressing of problems. It’s a fine thing that we can conceive of and work towards a future where technology liberates us from scarcity, mortality and the lingering psychology of otherness; my status as a cautious fellow-traveller of transhumanism remains unshaken. But I’m also convinced that there are many short-term problems to be overcome on the way to that future… and with that awareness comes a sense of frustration, a feeling that sitting around and flapping my lips on the internet isn’t really achieving much. Conversation is valuable, sure, as is raising awareness… but if I’m so convinced that there’s real work to be done, surely I should put my money where my mouth is, get my hands a bit dirty? Otherwise I’m just being a sort of low-rent version of those futurist pundits, the technological equivalent of the scraggle-bearded guy wandering the town square with a THE END IS NIGH OMFG sandwich-board.

So I’ve been searching for a way to make a difference, or at least to try to make a difference: some sort of practical application of my largely impractical skill-set. There aren’t a lot of jobs like that around, it turns out.

But I found one. And I landed it.

As of today, I am an employee of the University of Sheffield’s Civil Engineering department; my job title is “Research Assistant in the Future of Infrastructure”. I’m going to be working on projects intended to analyse the infrastructures that hold our civilisation together, and find ways to make them more efficient, more fair, more resilient, more unified. Energy production and consumption is already a hot-button topic, and with good reason; the internet’s rapid ascent from novelty telecomms application to ubiquitous civilisational support system means that the availability of bandwidth is already being mooted as a basic human right; changes in climate and population patterns are placing our limited supplies of potable water under increasing load, and the commodities traders – not content to play casino games with the price of the food we eat – are starting to look at water as the last great tradeable asset. Most importantly, these utilities don’t stand in isolation: they are interdependent. Terrifyingly so, in fact.

It feels good to be putting my efforts where my mouth is, helping people smarter than I to apply their knowledge in useful ways to a troubled world. It feels good to have a job that lets me feel like I’m putting all the stuff I’ve learned to practical use. And it feels good to have a job, full stop; I know a lot of people are struggling without one at the moment, and I’m damned privileged to have one.

The funny thing with confirmation bias is that understanding the concept does nothing to change its power. The last year of my life looks, on reflection, like the coming together of numerous threads which I never assumed would ever be connected. Today also sees me starting my Masters degree in Creative Writing, where I’ll be learning how to tell stories that connect with people on an emotional level – stories like the ones that opened my young mind to the possibility of worlds other than the one outside my window.

It’s an exciting time for me, and a bit of a scary one, too. But here I am, with a job title that sounds like it leapt from the pages of a science fiction novel, working in a world that increasingly feels a few page-turns away from dystopia or disaster. I can’t write the future on my own, of course; nor can anyone else. But by putting my efforts in alongside others, maybe I can help keep the plot from going off the rails. That seems like something worthwhile for me to be doing.

As far as Futurismic itself is concerned, things will proceed pretty much as they have been over the last six months or so: my posting schedule will continue to be irregular (and probably a little less frequent), but this here blog is too big a part of my thinking process to be mothballed. Plus people keep asking me to write about interesting things, and here seems as good a place to put them as any.

Futurismic is also the thing that has brought me into contact with a vast range of smart people with similar outlooks on the future, some of whom are probably reading this right now. So to those friends, sparring partners and fellow travellers, I’d like to say thanks, and ask you to keep reading and stay in touch – especially if your own adventures turn up something you think might connect to my research topics!

Without you and your engagements with what I’ve done so far, I’d not be writing this message at all. So please, keep the pressure on me. 🙂

Thank you.

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